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An agenda of normalization or a civic solution in Cuba?

The author sought to dialogue with one of those foreign intellectuals who tend to see the Cuban people as a background element, and to blame the country’s crisis on external factors.

Facade of a house in Havana.
Facade of a house in Havana. Diario de Cuba

Cuba has been enduring a series of convulsive phenomena in recent times: the effects of the pandemic and the economic crisis, the social outbreak on July 11, in addition to the perpetual repression that keeps hundreds of Cubans persecuted, prosecuted, or imprisoned. This is a human drama that never seems to end, fueling the growing exodus of Cuban nationals, especially young people, who are desperately fleeing anywhere they can, whether it is Nicaragua, Russia, the jungles of the Darien Gap, or the waters of the Florida Straits.

These multiple crises —economic, demographic, political and migratory— are nothing new, precipitated by the material and moral exhaustion of a politically authoritarian and productively backwards order. Collaterally, the geopolitical dynamics stemming from the prolonged conflict between the governments of Cuba and the U.S. unfold on top of them. Anyone with a modicum of information and common sense, with the capacity to know, and who wants to see, realizes what is happening.

However, a certain sector of the U.S. intelligentsia continues to shift the focus and narrative. Whether out of ideological militancy, self-interest, or naiveté, these figures blame mainly external factors (the US government and its policies) for the dire situation on the island. When they acknowledge some degree of responsibility for Havana, home to the leadership that has enjoyed, for six decades, omnipresent control over all the resources and people of the country, with regards to the current crisis they usually downplay it, preferring to point their figures at Washington.

I tried to talk to one of these intellectuals, particularly in demand in academic and political circles of the U.S. liberal establishment at this time, about these issues on the eve of 11J. Below is the message I sent him, without disclosing the identity of the addressee, as an example of some of the positions mentioned above.

Friday, July 2, 2021, 10:17AM

Professor: I read your last opinion column, as I frequently follow your journalistic and academic work on Cuba. Since the pandemic prevents us from meeting again and speaking about this subject, which I would like to do in person, I chose to write you. I do not usually write at such length and directly to anyone who is not a close friend, but the importance of your words in shaping American public opinion as regards Cuba spurs me to do so.

In your latest text you evaluate the Biden Administration’s recent revision of its policy towards Cuba, looking at it from the point of view of a purportedly "pragmatic" logic, with a focus on domestic policy, and with electoral overtones, suggesting that fear of a backlash by Cuban-American voters is behind Biden's reluctance to modify some of Trump's measures. You seem to deny any responsibility on the part of the other party, the Cuban regime, in the current breakdown of bilateral relations, as well as its impact on the Cuban population; and it does not seem that you believe that the revision is congruent with an agenda of privileging a multilateral and comprehensive defense of democracy and human rights, as distinct from Trump's temperamental chaos.

As it is my belief that no foreign (or domestic) policy can forego a balance, in different doses, between the pragmatic and the normative, I see an initial problem in your "realistic" approach: it does not recognize real situations (arising from the actions of the Cuban Government in recent years) that impact the principles and leeway for maneuvering by the current Administration, situations that complicate the hemispheric, geopolitical and humanitarian scenario on the island, affecting any understanding of "U.S. national interests"? those same ones that, you contend, the current policy of cautious revision does not further.

Your text seems to me, thus, analytically and politically, limited. Is it purely fear of a revolt by Florida’s electorate that explains the current revision of US policy towards Cuba? Does not the "hawkish" turn of that electorate (especially among its young and depoliticized sector) reveal a rejection of the situation on the island, one affecting their relatives and their own rights as emigrants, more than any ideological influence of Trumpism? Aren’t the actions of the other regime visible to you, which makes any attempt to improve bilateral relations difficult? Do you not see a pattern, parallels with the positions of other governments akin to Cuba’s, such as that of Nicaragua and Venezuela, which sabotage any serious attempt to improve the bilateral situation without sacrificing the situation and rights of the Cuban population?

You seem to overlook the fact that under the well-intentioned Obama Administration the Cuban government intensified its repression of all forms of activism (including against moderates who were banking on the restoration of relations), halted reform (defying its own official plans and the advice of Cuban economists), and backed the entrenchment of the Maduro regime, generating a regional humanitarian crisis.

To put it in simplified terms: in the civic, economic and geopolitical dimensions, Havana has been largely responsible for the current situation as regards its relations with the United States. This responsibility, however, is absent in your text. This is a position, incidentally, different from the recent article in which you do mention the San Isidro Movement. I would encourage you to inform yourself about what has happened to those artivists (repressed, imprisoned, and beaten) in these sad days…and Trump had nothing to do with it.

To blame Trump and his legacy, as disastrous as it may have been (I myself have written on the subject before) for US domestic and foreign policy and its prestige, for the crisis that today affects ordinary Cubans is, to say the least, naïve, and inexplicable given your evident knowledge and sophistication.  

Those of us who possess (as you and I do) the privilege of specialized education, access to information, and freedom of expression in an open society, should provide a better perspective on the Cuban crisis, putting its population at the center and, at the same time, evaluating how to deal with the party mainly responsible for the deterioration of its current situation. I have family and friends on the island, and the vast majority of their problems are not due to restrictions resulting from Trump's measures.

I could give you a long list of daily difficulties faced by those I know, all stemming from the way the Cuban elite governs the country, uses the resources available to it, and administers the rights of the people. To cite data accessible to anyone, by way of example, just look at the numbers that Cuba’s National Statistics Office acknowledged regarding the government’s spending on hotel investments in 2020 (in the midst of the pandemic), to the detriment of social spending. Or look at the figures (and modes) of the suppression of citizens who peacefully demand their rights, and analyze what the Communist Party of Cuba stated in the document put out after its last congress. None of this has anything to do with "incentives" or "restrictions" related to the Trump Administration.  

I regret to continue to see, on the part of the ‘establishment’ of analysts in your country, positions in which the Cuban population seems a mere background element, an inconvenient variable that is only approached and invoked with something similar to charity. Those who call for total embargoes, without the risk of suffering what this would entail, or speak of relaxing all sanctions against the hierarchy, assigning it no responsibility for the national crisis, share, paradoxically, that position, ignoring the very victims that they, supposedly, aspire to defend.

A smarter policy is possible. The U.S. could, right now, authorize the global donation of vaccines to Cuba, reestablish consulates, and revise its current restrictions on the sending of remittances. All of this would be a unilateral humanitarian stance benefitting the Cuban people. But sanctions against officials and entities that violate human rights should be maintained and expanded, and an agenda embraced to address the entire civic emergency on the island, especially as it affects young people, those of African descent, women, and artists, who right now are being treated like criminals for wanting to live in a country worthy of being lived in, without emigrating or going into exile.

It is necessary to reconsider any policy that harms the Cuban people without impacting its elite. To omit the latter’s responsibility, at the same time that Havana expands its restrictions of citizens’ rights (not only for political reasons), and persists in its economic policies in the midst of a major health contingency, is analytically weak, and civically unsupportive.

That was my message, which received no response. Although he is familiar with me and my work (we have coincided at a couple of events and in a couple of publications), he chose to ignore it. A few days later, following the events of 11J, I saw him adjust the framework and narrative of his public remarks, but without varying his theses and, above all, objectives of normalization. The Cuban protestors who appeared in his opinion columns stated that it was precisely for their sake that relations between the two countries had to be normalized, and soon, in order to alleviate their economic situation. The fact that these same poor people shouted at the demonstrations the age-old demand "Freedom," and that the Government violated this, in an even more severe way after 11J, did not seem relevant. All the solutions were to be traced to Washington, which is where demands, reproaches and proposals ought to be directed.

These foreign academics, the international counterparts of criollo reformers and political technologists, see the Cuban people as a kind of background element, a mass indifferent to the desires and rights enjoyed, in an imperfect but real way, by the citizens of the hemisphere; a mass that should be pitied and, if anything, whose plight should be alleviated with the crumbs that, supposedly, would result from an unconditional normalization of relations between the two countries ? normalization under which the Cuban government, appeased with investments and credits, could remain in power without being held accountable for its trampling of citizens' rights.

That such an agenda of normalization continues to be promoted before the public, and in international diplomacy, despite the current scenario, characterized by prisoners, migration and rampant poverty, is part of the problem. Thus, a continuous effort at dialogue, debate and argumentative deconstruction aimed at those who advance such positions should be part of the civic solution; or, at least, a sincere intellectual effort to understand the realities and responsibilities of all the actors involved in the still-unfolding national drama.

A version of this article was published in the publication Convivencia.

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